translating racine 2Phaedra: Blank and Free Verse Forms

Perhaps only a contemporary style is appropriate for today's understanding of Racine. That is the suggestion of Patrick Swinden, {1} who believes that English versions in rhyme have been prolix (seventeenth- and eighteenth-century productions), too Audenesque and detached (Wilbur) or loose and metaphorically thickened (Lowell). Blank verse is also unsuitable, favouring too much what Racine's art is not known for: rich characterization and vital dialogue. The sort of line C.H. Sisson created might be the most promising — "an eleven-syllable variant of the Shakespearean norm which approximates to the best of Middleton and, later, Eliot" — but Swinden doesn't provide an illustration.

The eighteenth century renderings are certainly nothing like Racine, and both the Lowell and Wilbur versions have their problems, though more with the workman than the tools. Pursuing the argument, however, we look at the translations requested in 1990 by the Independent Newspaper, {1} with which Dr. Swindon was also unhappy. The original French (Act I, Scene III: Phaedra speaking) is:

Mon mal vient de plus loin. A peine au fils d'Egée
Sous les lois de l'hymen je m'étais engagée,
Mon repos, mon bonheur semblait s'être affermi,
Athènes me montra mon superbe ennemi.
Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue ;
Un trouble s'éleva dans mon âme éperdue ;
Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler ;
Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler.
Je reconnus Vénus et ses feux redoutables,
D'un sang qu'elle poursuit tourments inévitables.

And the translations he quotes:

When first the rite of Hymen
Bound my obedience to the son of Aegeus
My happiness, my peace then seemed so plain
Careless in Athens stood my conqueror.
                    (R.C. Knight)

My pain began long ago. When promised
To Aegeus' son in marriage, at that time
When I thought my peace, my happiness secure,
Then Athens revealed my glorious enemy.
                    (Sian Evans)

My malady goes further back; when I
Had barely sworn my vows to Theseus,
And thought my calm and happiness assured
Athens showed my proud enemy to me.
                    (Alan Hollinghurst)

My pain is not so new. The very time
When I had bound myself in marriage bonds
To Theseus, Egaus' son; then, when it seemed
My peace and happiness were solid things,
I met that proud magnificence, my doom.
                    (Eric Korn)

Overall, the rhythms are untidy, preventing the exact placings of words and resonating meanings that poetry requires. The phrases seem dislocated, moreover, written in an elevated language that no longer fits together.

Digression: Dryden

There have been many attempts to bring the heroic couplet up to date. Racine's English contemporary was John Dryden, who closed a long writing career with translations from the classics. His rendering of Chapter VI of the Aeneid is well known:

Obscure they went through dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travellers in woods by night,
By the moon's doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds invokes the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots in fits before their eyes.
                   John Dryden 1697 {2}

Later attempts at this section have traded the crispness of image for more generally-spread emotion:

They went obscure in lowering lone night
Through lodges of King Dis, untenanted, —
Featureless lands. Thus goes a forest pathway
beneath the cursed light of the wavering moon,
When Jove has gloomed the sky, and pitchy dark
Uncoloured all the world.
James Elroy Flecker 1910 {3}

They wer' amid the shadows by night in loneliness obscure
Walking forth i' th void and vasty dominion of Ades;
As by an uncertain moonray secretely illumin'd
One goeth in the forest, when heav'n is gloomily clouded,
And black night hath robb'd the colours and beauty from all things.
                    Robert Bridges 1916 {4}

Vague forms in lonely darkness, they were going
Through void and shadow, through the empty realm
Like people in a forest, when the moonlight
Shifts with a baleful glimmer, and shadow covers
The sky, and all the colours turn to blackness.
                   Rolfe Humphries 1951 {5}

Now none of these examples — nor those quoted by Swindon — are by negligible authors, but some sense of authority or inevitability in the verse has been lost. Dryden did not translate Racine, but his Aeneid piece has a greater firmness of modelling, exact epithets, and sounds that echo in the mind long after the sense has been grasped. The piece is narrative and not drama, but the phrasing is that of sombre oratory, the lines moulded for powerful delivery.

Other Versions

Today's poetry is rarely oratory, but speech rhythms seeking an intuitive rightness. No one outside the pages of a book talks about the rites of Hymen, my proud enemy or doom, except jocularly, and we should perhaps now look at what Rawlings, Lowell, Wilbur and Hughes have done with this section of Phaedra. I give the pieces without comment as the characteristics are much as noted on page one:

Margaret Rawlings

This malady of mine is from far back.
Only just married to Aegeus' son,
My peace, my happiness seemed safe at last,
When Athens showed me my proud enemy.
I saw him. First I blushed and then grew pale;
At sight of him my troubled soul was lost.
My eyes no longer saw, I could not speak;
I felt my blood run icy and then burn;
I recognized Her! Venus! Dreaded fires,
Inevitable torments for that blood
Which she pursues. {6}

Robert Lowell

My evil comes from farther off. In May,
in brilliant Athens, on my marriage day,
I turned aside for shelter from the smile
of Theseus. Death was frowning in an aisle—
Hippolytus! I saw his face, turned white!
My lost and dazzled eyes saw only night,
Capricious burnings flickered through my bleak
abandoned flesh. I could not breathe or speak.
I faced my flaming executioner,
Aphrodite, my mother's murderer! {7}

Richard Wilbur

My ills began far earlier. Scarcely had I
Pledged with Aegeus's son our marriage-tie,
Secure in that sweet joy a bride should know,
When I, in Athens, met my haughty foe.
I stared, I blushed, I paled, beholding him,
A sudden turmoil set my mind aswim;
My eyes no longer saw, my lips were dumb,
My body burned, and yet I was cold and numb.
I knew myself possessed by Venus, whose
Fierce flames torment the quarry she pursues. {8}

Ted Hughes

My sickness began much earlier.
That day I married Theseus in Athens,
the moment the ceremony was over,
That moment of the surest happiness
I had ever felt in my life —
suddenly he was there
Standing in front of me,
He had simply appeared —
The man created
To destroy me.
Before I could grasp what I had seen
I felt my face flame crimson — then go numb.
My whole body scorched — then icy sweat.
My eyes went dark.
I could not speak. I could hardly stand.
I knew then that goddess had found me —
The latest in the lineage she loathes.
I had fallen
Into her furnace —
And I was trapped. {9}

Tony Kline

My pain goes further back.
I was scarcely tied To Aegeus’ son,
by those laws that make a bride,
My false peace and happiness secured to me,
When Athens showed me my glorious enemy.
I saw him, I blushed: I paled at the sight:
Pain swelled in my troubled heart outright:
My eyes saw nothing: I couldn’t speak for pain:
I felt my whole body frozen, and in flame.
I recognised Venus and her fearsome fires. {10}

A Start

If we want a more contemporary style we could start with blank verse, since this picks up the formality of the original and allows progression towards more everyday themes and diction. A fairly literal but unemphatic rendering is:

That ill goes further back, when first I vowed
My laws of hymen to the son of Aegeus,
Secure in happiness and peace of mind
I met in Athens my resplendent foe.
I saw him, coloured, at the sight grew pale,
My soul rose fluttering but was lost.
The daylight blinded and I could not speak
But knew immediately in fire and ice
That Venus was with me and with powers
To scourge our blood's fresh torment of desires.

This we can rewrite using a more flexible metre and everyday language:

I see that enmity as always with us,
That even my own nuptial day was cursed,
The joy and happiness I pledged to Theseus
Undone by Athens and a smiling foe.
And this I knew on meeting Hippolytus,
When soul and self-possession drained away.
I flamed there bodily in fire and ice,
But daylight hurt me and I couldn't speak.
I knew Venus was with me, and with powers
To scourge with fire new appetites of blood.

The trouble comes when we follow the precepts of present Modernism and adopt an everyday diction:

That madness has a history, and back
It came the day I married Theseus.
I felt my peace and happiness would last
But Athens really had it in for me.
Hippolytus came forward and I blushed
terribly, went pale and lost my head.
I couldn't look at him or find my tongue.
I felt so awful, going hot and cold.
Venus was with me, and she'd attack
With hots for someone I couldn't have.

Formal Version

Readers may like to try their hand, but I think they'll find that beauty and economy of phrasing disappear as they adopt the language suited to another period and outlook.

Racine's vocabulary was very limited, often employing the most conventional poeticisms. Scenes were constrained by a rigid conception (misunderstanding, in fact) of classical drama, and can seem artificial and static, the characters saying exactly what's needed, and hardly a word more. The scenes may be claustrophobic, or even repellent, but the greatness of the poetry lies in Racine's unflinching understanding of human nature, and his skill in deploying an alexandrine dense with interwoven reference. A style so complex is only manageable within a limited field, i.e. with restricted vocabulary and ready substitutions, and Racine certainly thought ahead. 'The play is finished, all I have to do now is to write it,' is a much-quoted remark. Romanticism, to whose tenets we still write, believed in an ineffability of poetry, that the meaning arose in the actual process of writing, whose outcome we couldn't foresee. French classicism was more business-like, and indeed closer to courses today on novel or play-writing, which say: Start with characters. Make them come alive with distinctive needs and habits. Force them to interact in a situation where conflict is inevitable. From that conflict comes plot. Weave in subplots for support and variety. Plan everything down to the last detail, scene by scene, speech by speech, and then, all that done, you need only join up the details to complete the work.

The rhyming couplet differs very much from the alexandrine, as we shall see in the next page, but both are styles of concision, clear in their prose meaning but exploiting shades of tone and connotation as words are rearranged to meet the exigencies of rhyme and metre. The beauty arises from the concise arrangement of words heavy with connotation, much as it does in mathematics. Ready substitution makes for a sort of 'Leggo' build of style, but each substitution asks probing questions, not least those now concerning deconstruction: the stand-alone meaning of each word in its new setting.

Racine created great poetry because the style allowed complex adjustments once its rules were learned. Modernism, which makes a virtue of difficulty, is opposed to the approach, but astute men like Racine — libertine, ambitious courtier and businessman — took what fortune offered, and our best course may be to adopt in translation what Racine found to work in practice. Recasting in rhymed pentameters, and remembering (as most versions have not) that Racine personifies Athens because Aricia is the woman Hippolytus loves, and therefore Phaedra's mortal enemy, we get:

That ill goes further back, but was begun
Once more in wedding vows to Aegeus' son.
Content in happiness, with more to know,
I met in Athens my contemptuous foe.
Hippolytus I saw, and blushed, grew pale,
Felt soul in agitation rise and fail.
My veins ran fire and ice, and that physique
Rained daylight at me, and I could not speak:
Venus stood waiting for me, and with fires
To scourge the blood's new torments of desires.


I have spoken of alternatives, and should give some examples. In place of that concluding couplet, simple substitution and rearrangement lets us write:

1. There Venus was standing and I knew desire
Would fasten on me and could never tire.

2. Venus was with me, I knew, with fires
Insatiably to stoke the blood's desires.

3. Venus I recognized, and in her fires
The inevitable tempests of desires.

4. Venus stood in him and her desires
Would pound on after me the blood's sharp fires.

5. Venus was personified and in her fires
The blood's impossible engorging of desires.

6. This was Venus, I knew, and now her fires
Would lash and furiously the blood's desires

And many others. At present, any choice is difficult because plays are a carefully-plotted continuum of emotion, and parts have to be referred to the whole. Even this passage needs to be modelled in its entirety, as a long speech invoking our sympathy and ending in Phaedra's despair. A muted rendering (No. 1) might be the more effective, but we wouldn't know until late into the whole translation — which is again an advantage with this 'cut and paste' style, which allows ready adjustment.

Concluding Remarks

I have tried to show that both blank verse and the rhymed couplet will convey something of the power and beauty of Racine's lines, and that, contra Patrick Swinden and Modernism generally, we shouldn't make deductions from generalities. Whatever style is chosen, the rendering will need skill, plus close attention to Racine's ironies and nuances of meaning, so that the choice is not between contemporary and non-contemporary, but what we wish to bring over of the original.

One page three we look at Racine writing at the highest level his style allows.

The author's full (and free) translation of Racine's Phaedra is published in pdf format by the Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Notes and References

1. Translating Racine. Patrick Swinden. Summer 1997. ht.:// Useful and extended article, touching on Lowell and Wilbur's and many other translations: argues for a free verse that renders nuances of meaning.
2. Quoted by A.F. Scott, The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (CUP, 1957), 111.
3. Scott 1957, 112.
4. Scott, 113.
5. Scott, 114.
6. Margaret Rawlings, Phèdre by Jean Racine: Translated by Margeret Rawlings (Penguin Books, 1961)
7. Robert Lowell, Phaedra: Racine's Phaedra in an English version by Robert Lowell ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960)
8. Richard Wilbur, Jean Racine's Phaedra: Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur (Dramatis Play Service, Inc., 1986)
9. Ted Hughes, Jean Racine: A New Translation by Ted Hughes. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)
10. Racine: Phaedra. Rhymed translation by Tony Kline.

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.